Companies looking to cut down employee training costs are tapping into collaboration technology, ranging from flashy, full-fledged video-on-demand services to wikis and micro-blogs.
Employee training can be expensive for companies. Classes take up valuable time, can generate travel expenses, and require outlays of cash to pay experts to offer the same instruction over and over again. Translating that training content into video and social software platforms like wikis and blogs can reduce or eliminate many of those costs.
"There's demonstrable savings in terms of travel and in distance-learning types of things, and then there's productivity benefits in terms of giving employees the information they need to do their job," said Irwin Lazar, an analyst with Nemertes Research.
Cisco often touts the millions it has saved in travel through its TelePresence systems, but even a minimal capital investment, coupled with a smart strategy, can provide serious savings.
Roll-your-own knowledge center
Open source and SaaS-based collaborative technologies are available, making deployment relatively simple and affordable, particularly if employees recognize the practicality of such a deployment.
"For us, we've seen wikis replacing the need to send out an email or store a document for instructions," Lazar said. The most useful wiki entries were task-focused: How to look up a record for a customer contact, or how to enter data into a CRM. "You can easily update it," he said, "and it's all there."
Wikis, the most famous being Wikipedia, are collections of collaborative Web pages that allow users to read and update content on the fly, with revisions typically tracked and saved in case of vandalism or accidents. A variety of platforms exist, ranging from open source solutions like TWiki to hosted services like SocialText.
In a recent report entitled "Informal Methods Challenge Corporate Learning," Forrester Research recommended that companies help employees create and organize wikis, blogs, and other employee–maintained tools in order to make training material both accessible and fresh. Forrester also suggested that this material be set up in small chunks that take no more than three or four minutes to consume.
Make the conversation stream (more) public
Much has been written recently about the collaborative uses of Twitter and other micro-blogging services, but few corporations feel comfortable -- nor should they -- with the prospect of sensitive information leaking to the outside world through the medium.
Fortunately, corporate-centric copycats such as Yammer have arisen, offering both free and paid services in a SaaS model.
Yammer allows corporate users to communicate internally in short status messages about projects they are working on, problems they are confronting, or tips they have learned.
At SYS Technologies, which provides IT products and services to government and industrial customers, Yammer has replaced some more traditional communications channels to help connect employees seeking information with those who have access to it but otherwise might never think to share it.
"We were doing a lot of [unnecessary] IMing, because people were repeating themselves all the time," said Neil Oatley, vice president of marketing at SYS. With Yammer, an employee can write something once and everyone he works with can read it, and it will be available in the future if someone searches on that topic.
Oatley said Yammer has made the early adopters at SYS much more efficient in sharing information on project progress and storing on-the-fly ideas.
Yammer will also help SYS employees reach across company channels, he said, bringing customer support and product development teams closer together, for example.
"If I can type to those guys every time I have a question, that gives me a whole army I can tap," he said -- "if I can make it easy."
That caveat is one of the central challenges that Oatley is facing when bringing in a new communications technology that he needs to keep track of, particularly as the benefits are still being built out.
"It's easy to use," he said. "It's not so easy to get people in the habit of using it."
The software itself is accessible through a variety of endpoints, ranging from desktop Web browsers to iPhone applications.
For many users, though, the benefits of adding one more new communication channel are not immediately apparent.
"The hardest thing is that there are some people who are [by disposition] not inclined to use this," Oatley said. "If you give them a reason, they'll use it; but if you don't, it will wither and die."
For Oatley, that value is all about showing how the technology can speed up processes without being disruptive: Users are not expected to respond to or even read every Yammer message, for example. But if they keep an eye on the current hot topics crossing the wire, they can chime in when they have something to contribute.
"Whenever you're distributed and trying to work together, anything you can do to streamline communication, my history says is going to help [you]," he said.
Video-on-demand: The gift that keeps giving
For more in-depth training, such as a new process or a tutorial on using a software system, a wiki entry or Yammer message just might not suffice.
Video-on-demand can be an effective supplement, even a replacement, for in-person training sessions, particularly if it can cut down on travel costs or ease the headache of coordinating the schedules of multiple trainees and trainers.
"You see a lot of Web conferencing for meetings, but it's also pretty useful for training," Lazar said. "We've talked to a lot of companies looking into video-on-demand, and if they're using a Web conferencing vendor, they'll use the same vendor for recording that Web conference for an on-demand record." It's a switch many companies might find easy to make: Nemertes' last round of research found that 65% of companies were already using some form of hosted Web conference, such as WebEx or GoToMeeting.
Early on, companies will make a small number of on-demand tutorials available through outsourced hosting companies. But as adoption rises and more training processes move to the video model, larger companies will host the video in-house.
Either way, the technology gives employees added flexibility to acquire training on their own terms or to refresh as necessary, without waiting for an available class.
"If it's how to use the new phone system or a new application rolling out," Lazar said, "I think Web conferencing can definitely replace training."
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